Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: Frostborn by Lou Anders (No Spoilers)

Those of you who want to know more about Lou Anders should check out the interview I conducted with him last time we were all together. It is a good one!

Cover Art by Justin Gerard

One of my most important moments as young boy was when my father handed me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I remember this moment distinctly-- I was eleven at the time, and one of the big complaints my parents had was that I was reading "too many comic books" and that it was time for me to "grow up." Because, you know, nothing makes someone grow up like switching from comics to fantasy novels... but anyway. The memory was because the cover was done by the amazing Alan Lee, who at the time was on a tear re-doing all of Tolkien's covers for the publisher. This was before the LOTR movies, and each one was a masterpiece.

What I found inside that book changed my life forever. Without The Hobbit I don't think I would have ended up with my dream of becoming a successful fantasy author, a dream that I will pursue until my life ends. The story of Bilbo was exactly what I need to... reading isn't the appropriate word here, but what I went through was an experience, one that showed me I could define myself without having to fit into a particular box (trope), that the power of goodness and fairness really do matter, and more importantly, that courage isn't being the biggest and the toughest, but the most willing.

I have grown older and moved on to more adult fantasy (thanks, Dad), but The Hobbit always stayed with me. It was my book.

I say all this, prattling on, because I think the importance of Lou Anders' Frostborn needs to be made clear: This isn't my Hobbit, but after reading it twice through, I am almost certain it would have been if I was eleven in 2014.

Anders has crafted a tale filled with ages-old themes and lessons that I think are often missing from a lot of today's fantasy, be it Middle-Grade or Adult. Friendship, Courage, Intelligence, and Trust--these are things that are often assumed to be in the background of every children's novel, but rarely are they talked about openly and pursued passionately, let alone done well. I believe this to be a major reason why I dislike Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series so much--when it is done out in the open it is too campy to my taste, and when it hidden in the background I just don't care. Anders falls more in with JK Rowling and Lloyd Alexander, so much so with the latter that I almost felt like I was reading The Book of Three (another classic everyone should read.) To put a point on it, I was taken on a great adventure and learned something.

I love the main characters, Karn and Thianna: while being new and interesting, they are also timeless. Thianna is a gem, especially when one looks at how Anders worked with a lot of different classical elements to develop a incredibly likable character that girls need to read more of. This book is like making an old soup recipe with the same ingredients, but the measures have been altered so the taste is different, and it tastes good. Even the secondary characters fit into their classical molds, but there is a small detail here, a small flair there, that truly sets them off with life and breath. More importantly, both of the main protagonists grow in an honest way--they never stop being kids, but they don't have their innocence stripped away. That detail is often overdone or overwrought, but here again, Anders shines. There won't be a forced adulthood. There won't be a black day that stains the rest of their lives. They win, they work, but at the end of the book, they remain wonderful.

The writing itself is never too simplified (which is always a big sin to me--kids don't need to be coddled because of a "lack of understand or nuance"), nor is it ever too high for someone of the age it is aimed towards. Anders works his Tolkien-like style very well, being able to balance character, dialogue, setting, and pace in equal measure. One of the key elements of the book focuses around Karn's ability to play his favorite board game, Thrones & Bones, and the many applications he uses this ability to get himself out of sticky situations. This is particularly well-done in his final standoff with the leader of the draugrs, which proves that you can be thrilling without a sword fight in adventure fantasy.

I do have some criticisms of the book. With the exception of the draugr lead the villains were a bit flat. Some of the humor is a little too young for me to really get a laugh out of, but that has more to do with me being how old I am more than anything else. The world of Norrongard is full and fleshed out, but I finished the book still wanting to know a little more about the Frost Giant's world, especially from Thianna's viewpoint. It was just missing that one *thing* that separates a "very good" setting from a "great setting."

But even with these criticism, Anders has forged for younger readers one hell of a fantasy adventure. I would definitely recommend this book, and I am sure the next one will be as equally charming.

See you all soon! Next post will feature my adventures at Dragon*Con!

Remember, you can always follow me @JayRequard!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Frostborn comes to Sit.Write.Bleed! ft. Lou Anders

Words can't really measure what I want to say, so I will keep it short.

It is my pleasure today to introduce Lou Anders for this interview. A Hugo Award winner for his fantastic stewardship of Pyr books, his first novel Frostborn was an honest delight to read. A review will be coming very soon for the novel itself, but without further ado, the interview.


Sit.Write.Bleed (SWB): Lou, welcome to Sit.Write.Bleed.! So in your debut novel, Frostborn, vikings, dragons, draugrs, and gaming are joined together in this epic story about Karn and Thianna, two kids from two very different walks of life. Where did the inspiration for such a multifaceted story originate?

Lou Anders (LA): The story of Frostborn grew over a number of years. Back in 2010, I tried my hand at a sword & sorcery short story inspired by childhood reading of Fritz Leiber. It was a disaster, one that should never see the light of day, but one of the two “buddy” characters was a woman who was half-human, half frost giant. I liked her and didn’t want to let her go, even though the story itself was broken. As I worried at her (across two more short story attempts), I started to realize that I didn’t really understand her dual-heritage and I ought to think more about her back story. Somewhere in there, I realized her backstory was the story. Frost giants sent me into a Norse/Viking research frenzy, and the world started to come together. Then when I wanted to pair her with a boy her own age, I tried to come up with a counterpoint to her very physical personality, and the idea of a board gamer came to me.

SWB: One of the real strengths of the novel is the ability to describe the game play of the "Thrones and Bones" board game. What has gaming added to your life, both as a writer and as a person?

LA: I played an enormous amount of board games in a short amount of time as an adolescent, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to Top Secret, Call of Cthulhu, Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Boot Hill, others. I was almost always the GM. And I certainly read more rules manuals, modules, and setting guides that I played. I think this was a foundational experience when it came to both learning to be a storyteller and broadening my imagination. Some much of our entertainment is passive, even a lot of video games that appear to be active are actually fooling the player into thinking they are exercising more decisions than they are, and RPGs strike me now as an amazingly active, player-driven form of entertainment. I want to involve my children in them for this reason. But it was a few years ago that I started to realize all of this, around the time when I discovered how many of my favorite fantasy writers were, or still are, dedicated role players. At that point I became very interested in the back and forth between playing RPGs and creating fantasy fiction. (Mind you, I’m not knocking video games, which I’m also very, very fond of.)

SWB: It is interesting to see a story focus on two main leads instead of one, especially when one considers that most coming-of-age fantasy is usually singular in its character focus. Karn and Thianna are great both as individuals in terms of their appeal to boys and girls, but where they really shine is their ability to work together and form a very organic friendship. Was that pairing something you set out to do early on or was it something that developed in the process of writing the novel?

LA: I have a son and a daughter, and I wanted to write a story with both of them in mind, with heroes both of them could be proud of. It’s very important to me that neither character is the other’s sidekick, but that they are co-equal leads. And it is very important to me that they each have strengths and weaknesses that differentiate them one from the other, but which they learn to put into service of the greater whole that is their friendship.

SWB: Let's talk about dragons and wyverns for a moment. Dragons have always held the imagination of readers, cementing themselves as an immortal trope, with wyverns just now working into the consciousness of fantasy pop culture. Why do you think that popularity has stuck through not only modern fantasy, but throughout centuries of storytelling?

LA: Dragons, done right, are more than just monsters. They are primal forces, iconic figures, majestic representations of elder days, powers in the world. One of the things I like the best about the new Hobbit films (and yes, there are things to like about them) is the way we see Gandalf’s motivation in helping the dwarves as fear that the Dark Lord might one day be able to turn Smaug to his purpose. Smaug is a game-changing power equivalent to a country or cabal of wizards in strength. He’s one of the features of the world. The archetype of entities that are very dangerous, very old, and very powerful is quite compelling. I hate when dragons are reduced to the level of regular monsters.

SWB: I know you took a trip to Norway to conduct research for the culture of this novel. How did visiting the home of the Vikings change your perceptions about them as a people and a culture?

LA: You know the first thing it did is taught me the landscape. Norway has a really unique geography, which, although I’d seen it in pictures, I didn’t understand until I was there. Geography shapes cultures, and sailing down the fjords, or standing on the mountaintops, I suddenly got it. I was working with my cartographer Robert Lazzaretti on the map of Norrøngard at the time, and I was taking photographs every day and sending them to him at night. It was a marvelous way to world build!

SWB: Stepping away from Lou the Novelist for a moment, many also know you as a Hugo Award Winner editor. What happened when you took off your editing cap and put on your writer's viking helmet? I imagine being on the other side of "the table", so to speak, led to a lot of discoveries about yourself.

LA: Ha. Maybe the first is that even though I’ve told scores of authors not to bother checking their Amazon ranking every five minutes, and know - with facts to back it up - how meaningless and futile it is - I can’t stop myself from doing it! Also, I’ve learned a great deal about writing from a decade and a half of editing, but being edited has taught me things I never knew.

SWB: So update us: when are the next two books coming, and what should we expect from the world of Thrones and Bones? More importantly, when will we see a board game?

LA: Don’t quote me on this until my publisher announces it formally, but books two and three should be out this time next year and again in 2016. Book two is on my editor’s desk, and I’m doing the research for book three now. As to a board game, the rules for Thrones and Bones are in the back of book one, and they’ll be rules for a different game in the back of book two!

SWB: Last question, and at Sit.Write.Bleed. we always end it with a fun one. What trope do you wish would disappear?

LA: There are no bad tropes, only degrees of skill in exercising them.

Cover by Justin Gerard

You can find out more about Lou and his work at these links:

Thanks for coming by and check the blog out again soon!